Monday, July 30, 2007

Grief by Andrew Holleran

Grief. What is it? What effect can it have in our lives? In Grief, Andrew Holleran explores these issues. A middle-aged man who is gay grieves over the loss of his mother, who has recently died after an extended stay at a nursing home. He accepts a temporary teaching assignment in Washington, D. C., filling in temporarily for a faculty member who is on sabbatical, and rents a room in a house whose landlord is a friend of a friend. In his landlord's library he finds and reads the letters and journals of Mary Todd Lincoln and becomes consumed with interest in how she describes her experiences leading to eventual deterioration, unable to reconcile herself to the tragedy of the death of her husband, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. As he contemplates her decline, he confronts other kinds of grief, such as the grief of middle-aged men like himself who can no longer enjoy the excitement and friendship of youth, and the grief of a whole community that has lost so many people to a ravaging disease.

In this powerful novel, Holleran explores grief in a number of manifestations. What do you think about this novel's view of grief? In what ways do the people depicted in this novel find it difficult or impossble to let go of a vanished past and move on? What does Holleran convey to readers about both the awareness and lack of awareness of the narrator and other characters? How does his view of grief compare with your own experiences of or observations about grief?

4 comments:

Melissa said...

I've been thinking about whether this is a book to which people will generally react differently depending on their age. One of the themes is clearly the universal nature of grief (a role given most abundantly to Mary Todd Lincoln). But the particular desolation(s) portrayed in Grief, a deeply interior novel, must resonate differently with readers depending on their own situation (coupled or not, orphaned or not, late-middle-aged or not, etc.). As it was, I found the book powerful and beautifully written, but it left me at a remove. It also made me sad, all the ways that people circle around one another, either trying to get close to others or finding ways to keep them at a distance (the narrator's friend Frank gives his boyfriend a snarky nickname; our narrator and his landlord do an endless dissembling dance of thank-you notes, false heartiness, and dog behavior interpretation).

It was striking that the narrator's mother didn't even know he was gay. How could their relationship been as close as the reader is led to believe (given the depth of his mourning) if she did not even know about a fundamental part of his character and his life? Such is the mystery of grief, I suppose. Perhaps Holleran -- who doesn't describe the mother in the least -- is saying that it is, in fact, all about the narrator ("I was the solitary traveler this time; on a day whose future identity had been my own selfish worry when my mother died: What would I do with each Saturday?"). And surely he was also grieving the lost opportunity to have the person closest to him ("'I was her work, after all'") actually grasp the totality of who he is.

Anonymous said...

Grief's main subject concerns what its title suggests: the nature of grief. The act of going on with your life once the death of a loved one has happened--how you do, and in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln (and the book's narrator), how you don't, stuck in the stasis of loss.

This was a profound novel, its theme how loss is both personal and universal, how everyone's bereveament is both their's alone and yet understood by all who have suffered loss.

And all the losses: Mary Todd Lincoln's loss of her husband, the narrator's loss of his mother, his friends, his generation and community, and his ways of dealing with something he cannot comprehend as being so deep in the abyss that his intellectual logic will pull him through it.

Melissa said...

Just a comment on the "universal nature of grief" I and others have seen in Grief -- I was talking about this book with my father over the weekend, and he sent me an email the other day (after having procured and started reading it) saying, "While I, as a man, am sort of enjoying it (page 42); I cannot fathom what possible interest a woman would have in the story...unless you're focusing on the caregiver aspect of some of the characters." Please don't call my father a sexist (I already did), but I wonder if anyone else sensed a strong gender disparity in the appeal of this book.

Stuart said...

I want to republish a comment by Anonymous submitted on August 15 which was published in an earlier post by mistake.

Andrew Holleran's lyrical and poignant novel, "Grief" depicts the plight of aging gay men who remain alive while so many of their friends and love ones have died of aids. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is mourning the recent death of his mother. He has moved temporarily from his house in Florida to a rented room in a beautiful Washington D.C. row house to teach a College course, and he spends hours exploring the streets and buildings of the city and pondering the past. With his mother gone, he thinks to himself, " I've belonged to no one, and no one's belonged to me."He enviously compares his situation to that of his landlord, a well to do and culture attorney who is approximately his own age, but whose life appears to be more fulfilled than his own.

In his room, the protagonist finds a book with letters written by Abraham Lincoln's widow, and he strongly identifies with her loneliness and feelings of desolation. After her husband was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln lived on for seventeen years, wearing black for the rest of her life, and never again regaining her peace of mind. The narrator's solitude is alliviated slightly when he visits his cynical friend, Frank, who is battling cancer and lives with his boyfriend, whom he calls the Lug. Frank has had some very difficult times, having buried his mother and his former lover, and valiantly trying to survive his own debilitating illness.

He is a breath of fresh air, a person who speaks his mind and challenges his friend to give up his grief, which is useless after a certain point. He goes on to say, "You can't sit and grieve forever."

I would disagree because
some people never move on. To them
by hanging on to their grief, they are also clinging to the only remnant that they have left of the departed person. And as long as they have that, they are not alone, they still have that person. The grief is the person's presence on earth.

August 15, 2007 11:06 AM